Nothing like vintage nonsense from Doug Ford to pack a meeting.
Nearly 700 very engaged residents, no doubt still haunted by the spectre of a Ferris wheel and mega-mall on the shoreline, turned out Wednesday night, December 7, for a consultation on the future of the port lands.
Hosted by the city of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto, the arm's-length agency in charge of harbour development, the meeting held at the Reference Library on Yonge was the first since council voted to accelerate planning of the massive project.
But judging from the response of this crowd, most interested observers actually favour a slow and steady strategy, not a speed-up.
The fear many expressed was that rushing would risk bungling the long-term goals of making the nearly 1,000 acres of industrial land on the city's eastern waterfront ecologically sustainable, publicly accessible and pleasing to the eye.
After those in attendance met in smaller working groups, they came back with recommendations to conserve and expand recreational areas and to ensure that the design lives up to the world's highest enviro standards.
One group demanded to know why the project is being hurried at all. Another voiced the popular suspicion that Mayor Rob Ford's administration is seeking to make a quick buck by selling off some port land to developers.
"Don't accelerate this project for short-term gain," they advised.
Waterfront Toronto president John Campbell attempted to assuage participants' unease.
"The guiding principles of design excellence and sustainability, they survive. They're not being attacked," he said. "We're not throwing the baby out with the bathwater."
The city's planning and growth management chair, Councillor Peter Milczyn, acknowledged that people's skepticism was legitimate, given the recent history of port land planning. Back in September, Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor's brother, unexpectedly announced the administration's intention of wresting control of the project from Waterfront Toronto and handing it to the Toronto Port Lands Company.
Ford proposed building a giant Ferris wheel and monster retail on the site, but he and the mayor eventually backed down, and council voted to review existing plans with the goal of fast-tracking them.
"I understand the fear and even the anger that was generated when Councillor Ford and the Port Lands Company unveiled their ideas," said Milczyn, an ally of the mayor who put forward the motion to speed up the project. He maintains that the review is necessary to find ways to finance existing plans and to harmonize projects across the vast port lands area, much of which still lacks a blueprint for development.
"This is not a Trojan Horse exercise," he told NOW.
Deputy city manager John Livey assured participants that any new strategy will stay true to existing plans to re-naturalize the mouth of the Don River, a design element that doubles as a flood protection zone and is seen as a cornerstone of the project by those who want a strong green component. Livey admitted there could, however, be some "tweaking" of details of the re-naturalization.
While there are still two rounds of public consultation and several stakeholder meetings to go before June, when a staff report on the accelerated plan will be presented to city council, Campbell speculated that fast-tracking could mean building less housing. Instead, Waterfront Toronto is eyeing big anchor projects that it could use to generate cash for Don River re-naturalization and more modest mixed-use residential construction.
"Are there things we could put there that would spur development, like a university and entertainment area or a research cluster?" Campbell asked in an interview. "Are there ways we can bring the private sector in to finance this?"
Where to find multi-billion-dollar financing remains a huge question. Don River re-naturalization alone is pegged at $634 million, and large injections of government funds to pay for it are unlikely. Aside from the one-shot anchor projects Campbell raised, he also floated the novel idea of changing Waterfront Toronto's mandate to allow it to raise money by issuing bonds to private investors.
Oslo and other cities have financed their waterfront development by instituting road tolls on downtown streets, a political non-starter in Rob Ford's Toronto.
Milczyn speculates that if the review process results in a sound business plan, work on new port lands projects could break ground in five to 10 years. Critics say that timeline is much too ambitious.